Speech for the Yale Political Union: Does Religion Have A Place in Government?

This speech was given before the Yale Political Union on November 15th 2016. The resolution was “religion has no place in government,” and I was asked to argue the negative position. Dr. Ronald Lindsay, president of the Center for Inquiry, argued the affirmative position. The Union found in my favor by some insignificant margin or technical rule.

I first want to thank you all for inviting me here to discuss politics and religion, two of my favorite subjects, and perhaps incidentally, the two things you shouldn’t discuss in polite company. I like to think that’s part of why these topics retain such an air of tension and mystery — because it isn’t often we share our thoughts about them in conversation with our friends, colleagues and peers. And that’s a shame. Being that these two categories comprise many of the contours of our public and private lives, it’s worthwhile to give them thorough consideration, both apart and together. And so I’m happy to be here, and hope I can help bring some clarity to all of our thinking on the question of whether religion has a place in government.

First, I’d like to take a moment to thank Dr. Lindsay for joining us here. Dr. Lindsay has done so much in the way of thinking on these topics and has contributed a great deal to our shared understanding of them, and I so appreciate that contribution, and wanted to express my gratitude for him putting aside the time to talk with me here today.

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That religion has no place in government is both a positive and normative statement, by which I mean it can be read both ways: as either a statement of fact, that there simply is no place for religion in government; or as a statement with moral intention, that there ought to be no place for religion in government.

These two readings are related but not the same. They are related both because whether something is so is no argument for its being so, and because, things that are nonetheless often carry moral inertia, and justify themselves by their being. So it’s worthwhile to consider the two propositions apart.

I’d like to begin by considering the definition of religion.

The etymology of the word is contested. By the time of Saint Augustine, roughly the fifth century, the Latin word religio was in use with regard to Christian practice; Augustine himself used the term from time to time, though in City of God he expressed dissatisfaction with it, writing: “The word ‘religio’ might seem to express more definitely the worship due to God alone…yet both the uneducated and best educated use the word to express….the observance of social relationships. (X.1)” Augustine approved of an etymology of religio common to Latin grammarians which attributed it to the root ligare, ‘to bind.’ (Consider our English ligament.) But other ancient sources, including Cicero in De Natura Deorum just as credibly connect religio with relegere, a Latin verb meaning to go over again and again, as in reading, thought, and so on. In this case religio would anchor itself not in a sense of being bound, but in a sense of having an overwhelming central concern.

This perhaps shines some light on how religious came to indicate in the Middle Ages clergy who belonged to orders as opposed to diocesan clergy who were attached to particular regions of church administration. There were therefore religious priestsand secular priests — a very strange concept to modern ears! — because some had adopted the special concerns of specific groups, as Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites and so on, and some were only associated with geographical areas.

But everyone was, in the sense we now employ the term, religious.

With modernity religio assumed its present meaning, a “universal genus of which the various religions are species (Cavanaugh)”; this generic usage of religio was essentially unknown to the medieval and ancient worlds, where even religio Christiana was used not to designate everything related to Christianity, but only a distinction between the practice of the Christian faithful and the Roman pagans, who were said to have only superstitio, which was idolatry (Feil.)

In fact, some cultures — notably the ancient Greeks — had no expression to match our ‘religion’, and apparently didn’t need one. This background is helpful in that it reveals that the term itself is doing some rather hefty work, that is, relegating certain modes of thinking, certain behaviors, certain ideas, certain images and words to membership in a genus shared by other species which, upon further inspection, they might have precious little in common with. Religion is an inherently tendentious concept.

Our best scholars, in fact, can’t agree on what it might mean. “Religion is a belief in spiritual beings,” writes Edward Burnett Taylor, the first cultural anthropologist; “by religion,” writes George Frazer in The Golden Bough, “I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to be direct and control the course and nature of human life”; “religion is,” says William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine”; Emile Durkheim, an early sociologist, considers religion to be “a unified system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, and all those who adhere to them,”; Durkheim also says, in the very same The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, that religion is “the self-validation of a society by means of myth and ritual,”; for Paul Tillich, religion is “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary, and a concern that in itself provides the answer to the question of the meaning of our existence,” and for modern sociologist Clifford Geertz, “[Religion is] a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, persuasive, and long lasting moods and motivations…. by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”

Oftentimes you’ll hear, in popular culture, various things not typically called religions described as such to critique them; most recently, Harvard scholar Harvey Cox argued the market itself, and free market economics more generally, constitute a kind of religion. To which I say: sure, I guess. Religion is a loose and expansive term and not a very revealing one, I think; in fact, I tend to suspect it occludes more than it illuminates by likening fundamentally unlike themes and practices conceived of by radically different people in entirely different places and times.

So then: does religion have a place in government? Obviously it does, as a descriptive matter. Consider all its constituent parts: its symbols, words, virtues, experiences and, yes, its ethics — they’re all evident in our own government, from the mentions of God on our money to the silent prayers of politicians facing down crisis to the private mixture of moral considerations made by voters on their way to the booth. Governments are made up of people, and people incorporate the symbols and ethics of religion into their reasoning and interior lives whether or not they articulate especially religious reasons for the political choices they come to.

Further, and again as a descriptive matter, we’re surrounded by a thoroughgoing civil religion. Sociologist Robert Bellah writes:

“What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity. This religion — there seems no other word for it — while not antithetical to and indeed sharing much in common with Christianity, was neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian.”

This civil religion is the reason stepping into a stately government building or listening to an impassioned presidential address can be a genuinely moving experience. It’s why burning a flag is anything more than the concern of a fire marshal, and why we can reckon our lives as much by national holidays and anniversaries as by liturgical calendars.

It’s why Abraham Lincoln said in an 1861 speech that he could “recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for; that something even more than National Independence; that something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come; I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.”

The discovery of civil religion is one of those interesting consequences of the contemporary definition of ‘religion’ as a relatively broad category. There’s no construal of ‘religion’ in the modern sense that would include, say, both Daoism and Judaism but not the veneration of our American martyrs, from Kennedy to King, or the mythic creation story surrounding our founding. And this isn’t a unique fact of American public life.

Religions are often described in terms of experiences of the transcendent or transformative, or in terms of temporal practices or actions which refer to the eternal. And so, it seems, are states — as in Lincoln’s address. This is not just an indication of a particular American civil religion, but a general fact of modern nation states: They bear, as Hegel argued, a sacral quality. States call us, at times, to die for them — for the very idea of them — and it’s hard to imagine someone offering that sort of eternal sacrifice for a purely contractarian purpose. As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it:

“The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf. As I have remarked elsewhere, it is like being asked to die for the telephone company.”

Which most of us would, I think, be loath to do. AT&T does not strike me as transcendent or transformative. But at my old college at Cambridge I remember a wall outside our chapel (and noticed this afternoon that you, too have such a wall on your beautiful campus — you, too, live with these ghosts, and love these dead) where the names of those alumni killed in the first World War were inscribed, and the inscription address announced that the monument should:

“call to remembrance those brothers of ours, who in the studies and playing-fields of the College, and in worship in this Chapel, learned those lessons of self-devotion which — at a call as Christian and English gentlemen they could not disobey — led them to surrender their lives and all that in life was beautiful and hopeful and dear.”

It seems to me that — as a descriptive matter — religion indeed has a place in government.

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I have said this positive statement has a relation to the normative one. I’ll now turn to the idea that religion ought to have a place in government.

I don’t mean to argue for theocracy; I think it’s sufficient to maintain that the religious should, when engaging in political life, feel free to articulate publicly their religious motives and reasoning.

There are several reasons why. The first is that law both expresses and enforces certain moral truths which cannot be divorced from broader moral systems, and for the religious — those sharing communities of some overwhelming concern — it’s disingenuous nigh impossible to deliberate on what truths the law should express without citing their religious priors.

And this, secondly, allows their co-religionists to hold them responsible for their claims. The tendency of liberal societies to bifurcate religion and politics into two separate spheres — one private, one public — encourages religious participants in political deliberation to equivocate somewhat about their motives and beliefs, as it’s not really possible in that political context to interrogate them. Yet it should be. As long as the religious are going to participate in governance, it’s going to be better, not worse, to argue out the legitimacy of their claims on their own grounds, rather than accounting for all religiously motivated argumentation as both void and unassailable on the grounds of its privacy. Politics are already religious, as I have argued, and are intrinsically so; in that case, it’s better that we be clear and direct about our convictions than cloak them in a flimsy veil of privacy.

Thirdly, the language of religion often renders legible phenomena that are illegible to the rationalist lens of the modern nation state alone. Consider, for example, evil. In The Death of Satan, historian Andrew Delbanco writes in order to document the “incessant dialectic in American life between the dispossession of Satan under the pressure of modernity and the hunger to get him back” due to his conviction that “if evil, with all the insidious complexity which Augustine attributed to it, escapes the reach of our imagination, it will have established dominion over us all.” The Augustinian conception of evil as privation — a lack, a deficiency, a receding toward non-being — requires an ontology that acknowledges in being some good, and here again we have strayed into the stuff of religion. But this conception of evil is especially important, Delbanco argues, because by locating the source of evil in our own deficiencies, “it offers something the devil himself could never have intended: the miraculous paradox of demanding the best of ourselves.” A lesser explanation of evil couldn’t necessitate such an absolute offering up of one’s own humility and vulnerability, which is, incidentally, exactly the kind of participation that ensures the best of politics.

Lastly, when religion is entirely privatized and politics dominates the public realm totally, there is little with sufficient moral weight to check political hegemony. There is a reason totalitarians seek to swiftly snuff out religious dissenters, and there is also a reason that religions nonetheless endure. The likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were able to resist hegemonic — and unjust — political exercise not out of reserves of private religious virtue, but because they produced religious objections to the evils of their respective states and pressed these cases politically, in public. From this perspective it is easy to imagine why the modern nation-state might insist that religion be privatized and ejected from the public sphere; it should be equally easy to imagine why we should resist that effort.

And this doesn’t apply only to fringe cases where extreme resistance measures (as against fascist regimes or racist violence) would otherwise be excused even by garden variety liberals. Indeed, destructive ideologies exert hegemonic control over our everyday, ordinary lives, and in many cases seek to exclude religious reasoning much to their benefit. Eugene McCarraher argues, for example, that in contemporary society religion has been displaced by a kind of Mammon-worship precisely o facilitate the dominance of global capitalism: “Far from being ‘secular’ modes of economic and political rationality, the nation-state and the capitalist market are unmistakable forms of fetishism, sacral orders which captivate and mobilize our perverted celestial desires.” McCarraher cites the Freudian “money complex” and Marxist “commodity fetishism”, in which the value of objects is imagined to inhere in their material substance rather than in the relationships between persons; Marx himself observed that in this sense commodities are “very strange thing[s], abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties”

Since this is the case — that a perverse form of religion dominates our politics and political imagination — then it would be better, as well as orthodox (from my Augustinian perspective) to replace it with a positive, superior religious imagination. This is why in my political writing I argue for as much, and why I do so from an openly Christian position. Some of the most powerful religious forces in politics indeed belong to capital, an unfolding made possible largely by the liberal effort to vacate traditional religion from the ‘sphere’ of political economy in order to, among other things, obliterate formerly limited understandings of property and ownership and replace them with more absolute rights (Ellen Meiskins Wood.) Secularity has thus far done a pretty poor job of resisting this; in fact the rational liberals of the enlightenment are the root cause of it, and for that reason I would resist them not with their own devices, but with open, forthright and robust theology.

Thank you.